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We're almost 10 years into what everybody keeps calling Bob Dylan's comeback, and not that I doubted it or anything—the evidence is indisputably there, on record and satellite radio, on 60 Minutes,PBS and even that Victoria's Secret commercial—but somehow I'd been missing the performances everybody keeps talking about. You know, the good ones?
That changed at Dylan's Oct. 21 date at the Long Beach Arena, where he hopscotched across the breadth of his career with a passion and playfulness I hadn't seen since I know exactly when: a Valentine's Day show at the Forum that wrapped up his 1974 tour, which everybody was calling a comeback, too.
I just now counted and realized that I've seen Dylan eight times in between—from the boho-apocalypse of his Rolling Thunder era to the oh-no-what-is-this of his Christian era, down through his long Very Crappy era and back up into this Second Coming II. It's this last period—in the wake of critically acclaimed studio work that has produced the Grammy-winning Time Out Of Mind, the stunning Love and Theft and the chart-topping debut of Modern Times—that's been the most frustrating. Reviewers kept raving that the new material was translating into live performances of renewed energy and artistry.
Not when I showed up, whether it was at the Antelope Valley County Fair, a minor league ballpark in Schaumburg, IL, or the Pacific Amphitheater in Costa Mesa. In the name of interpreting his songs—the guy, of course, is famous for making his best-known compositions nearly unrecognizable—Dylan would lazily hitch his repertoire to two or three vocal riffs, making just about everything sound the same. That his band was invariably tight-hot together only underscored the uninspired motions he was barely going through.
Thus, the Long Beach show was a surprise that only became more stunning as it endured throughout the evening. Dylan wasn't exactly in good voice—that would be impossible—but his weird inflections, croaks and roars were inextricably connected to the lyrics he was singing, giving them depth and weight and maybe a little significance. As has been his custom lately, Dylan spent the entire show standing behind an organ that was clustered in a semi-circle with the rest of his five-man ensemble at the center of the stage. Outfitted in black suits and hats, they looked like a backup band awaiting its frontman. The well-designed set list toured from nostalgia to rarities to big hits to new material and back again
Opening number "Cat's in the Well," a virtually unknown jump blues that closes the pretty forgettable 1990 album Under the Red Sky, set the adventurous tone. Songs like "She Belongs to Me," "Just Like a Woman" and "Highway 61," breathed life again, as did old political parables like "The Ballad of Hollis Brown" and "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." When it threatened to get too heavy, Dylan came up for air with his modern versions of old-timey sounds in "When the Deal Goes Down" and "Summer Days." If this truly is the new Dylan (and not just a one-off incredible performance), well, then lucky us—it'd be a shame to wait 32 more years for another night like this.